Jaws didn’t do sharks any favours.
But in reality, they’re the misunderstood good boys of the sea.
Sharks aren’t looked upon kindly in popular culture and don’t get much sympathy in public opinion. They are widely regarded as cold-blooded killers with mean, dead little eyes, who are only satisfied when they’re ripping the legs off unsuspecting swimmers and gobbling children up whole.
However, this stereotype of sharks as evil, bloodthirsty sea monsters who love to attack human isn’t accurate.
Sharks kill approximately five humans every year, compared to horses who kill 20 and cows 22. Alligators, a prehistoric predator just like sharks, cause the deaths of 1,000 humans each year.
We each have a 1 in 63 chance of dying from the flu and a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark.
More importantly, we really need sharks. If we care at all about the health of our oceans, sharks as a species are vital.
Sharks are the apex predators of the sea. They sit at the very top of the food chain, alongside killer whales (who routinely coax baby whales away from their mums to kill them but bizarrely are looked upon far more kindly than sharks). If the shark population dwindles, then the marine ecosystem can become dangerously unbalanced.
Sharks are necessary for keeping the populations of their prey healthy. They tend to only hunt old, injured, or sick fish, grooming or streamlining many populations of sea creatures to keep them to a size where they won’t grow too big and damage the ecosystem.
This practice of hunting sick or slow prey might sound horrible, but it prevents disease from ravaging prey populations and stops potentially devastating outbreaks. It encourages the gene pool of the prey species to strengthen, so that the strongest and healthiest fish can reproduce in greater numbers.
Sharks are considered a ‘keystone’ species. This means that if they are removed from the food chain, the whole structure could collapse.
Without sharks regulating the ecosystem underwater, vital habitats would undergo serious damage. In Hawaii, sharks have been linked to the health of sea grass beds, because they control the population of the turtles that graze on the sea grass. Without sharks eating the turtles, they were able overgraze on concentrated areas of sea grass and as a consequence, destroyed their own habitat.
According to research from the University of Western Australia, sharks are also necessary for the health of coral reefs.
Researchers found that areas of reef with healthy shark populations were where small reef fish were thriving. These small fish care for the corals, and where sharks were present in optimum numbers, the corals were recovering fasting from bleaching and flooding, ad showing a greater resistance to disease.
This is particularly important because the world’s corals are increasingly under threat, and although they cover a relatively small percentage of the ocean floor, they are vital for the health of the ocean and the health of the planet.
Unfortunately, too few people understand the importance of sharks.
A national opinion poll commissioned by the UK charity Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation recently revealed that 46% of Brits would prefer an ocean without sharks.
This is sad, but not surprising when we consider what a bad rap sharks have been getting ever since Jaws premiered in 1975.
The poor public perception of sharks is also making efforts to save the sharks difficult. People are more likely to care about the evils of the ivory trade or big game hunting, because elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, and so on are considered cuddlier.
Underwater, dolphin and whale conservation is prioritised above sharks because they are viewed in a more positive ways and people are more willing to donate to causes that feature them.
Sharks desperately need our support.
Although people might be frightened of sharks, humans are the real monsters here. We are killing sharks in vast numbers, murdering approximately 100 million of these fascinating and supremely well-adapted creatures every years.
Sharks are killed for shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy in parts of Asia, which can be sold for up to $100 a bowl. In China, it’s seen as a mark of status and refinement to serve shark fin soup at a wedding. Increases in wealth for the Chinese middle class has enabled more people than ever to be able to afford shark fin soup, massively increasing demand for the product and devastating shark populations.
When sharks are caught, their fins are cut off and they are throw back into the water, still alive, to bleed to death. A single shark will only create a couple of bowls of soup. The whole process is wasteful and inhumane, causing great suffering to the animal involved.
Even famously hard-bitten and sweary Chef Gordon Ramsay says: ‘[Shark finning] is the worst act of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen.’
The Dalhousie University in Canada analysed life data from 62 species of sharks and found that only 4.9% of sharks can be killed each year – anything more will threaten the long term survival of species including the oceanic white tip, porbeagle and several types of hammerheads. Currently, between 6.4% and 7.9% of sharks across all species are being killed annually.
To make matters worse, sharks produce few offspring and take long periods to mature, meaning that it’s very difficult to replenish shark populations.
If we don’t protect sharks, we put the health of ocean habitats, marine life populations and the planet as a whole at risk.
To assuage the doubts of anyone who’s still not sure about sharks, we spoke to Graham Buckingham, campaign director of Bite-Back.
Hi Graham! How long have you worked with or studied sharks?
I’ve been diving with sharks for 17 years and I launched Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation in 2004.
Sharks are fascinating creatures. Can you tell us why they’re so amazing?
Sharks are the lions and the leopards of the oceans.
There are over 480 species of sharks. The largest, the whale shark, can grow to the size of a single decker London bus. The smallest, the pygmy shark, is the length of a pencil.
Sharks boast three more senses than humans — electroreceptors on their snouts (called the ampullae of Lorenzini) that help detect electricity (muscle movement) in prey, lateral lines that run down both sides of the body to help sense vibrations in the water, and pit organs, a series of hair cells located in the gills and the pectoral fins that help detect changes in water temperature and currents.
Sharks have been swimming in our oceans since before dinosaurs walked the earth and survived six mass extinctions.
How dangerous are sharks to humans?
Typically, there are no more than seven fatalities from shark encounters every year worldwide.
British cows kill as many people each year as all the sharks in the world, combined. Last year more people died from bee stings, dog bites, lightning strikes, toasters, ladders and falling vending machines.
Only three sharks have been linked to multiple (double digit) human fatalities since records began — the great white, the bull and the tiger.
We did some research recently that shows that 64% of Brits think that sharks are more terrifying than snakes, spiders and rodents combined.
We believe that the public’s fear and loathing of sharks is hindering shark conservation efforts, contributing to the demise of these majestic creatures.
How do human activities threaten sharks?
The biggest threat to shark population is industrial fishing. Global fishing fleets are catching 73 million sharks a year, that’s roughly two every second. And nature can’t keep up.
Because there are no international or European catch limits for most sharks caught in the Atlantic, Spain, France, Portugal and Britain rank in the top 25 shark fishing nations in the world.
The daily lifestyle email from Metro.co.uk.
This content was originally published here.